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California and the West

Marines Invite Muslims to Base for Ramadan

January 23, 1998|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUSTIN — The U.S. Marine Corps has agreed to open a vacant blimp hangar at the Tustin Marine base to 7,000 Muslims next week so they can observe the end of Ramadan, the holiest of Islam's holidays.

The unusual agreement was announced Thursday, and military officials and leaders of the Islamic community in Orange County expressed hope that it will lead to better understanding between Muslims and the military.

"Honestly, I never believed that the Marines would let us do this," said Haitham A. Bundakji, chairman of the Islamic Society of Orange County. "But as an Arab American who loves his country very much, I am so proud that my countrymen are so open-minded. God bless America."

Navy Capt. Tom Atkins, a Protestant chaplain involved in the negotiations, said the effort required assistance from people of several faiths.

Final approval was given by Marine Brig. Gen. Robert Magnus, who is Jewish and commands all Marine air bases on the West Coast. Moreover, Tom Thorkelson, a local Mormon bishop, first recommended that the vacant blimp hangar be used for the Islamic worship services, Atkins said.

"That was the only available place in Orange County big enough to hold that many people at a prayer service," Thorkelson said. "Mr. Bundakji told me about the problem they were having finding a large-enough facility. I look down at that empty blimp hangar every day and said, 'Why not?' "

Atkins said that he got a "say again" response from Magnus when he e-mailed the general informing him that "by the way, sir, I'm inviting 5,000-plus Muslims to worship at the base on Jan. 29."

"Once the general understood that the request was real, he said, 'Well, let's see what we can do,' " Atkins said. "His staff went to work, and all of this was approved in two days. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to show the Muslim world that we understand how important their religion is."

Atkins said Muslim leaders have agreed to make the prayer service "totally ecumenical." Local Muslim leaders have invited "persons of all religious faiths to join them at prayer," he said.

U.S. servicemen stationed throughout the West Coast who are practicing Muslims have also been invited, he said.

Bundakji said the Muslim faithful will pray inside the hangar from 8 to 10 a.m. Thursday to mark the end of Ramadan, a monthlong period of atonement and daytime fasting.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved," Bundakji said. "For us, it's a chance to show other Americans that we are good citizens. It will open a new bridge of understanding and love with the military and all Americans and hopefully tear down some old stereotypes."

Atkins said that Marine officials are planning the logistics for accommodating 7,000 people.

"It really is exciting. We're going to have some organizational meetings to plan for the parking and comfort needs of the worshipers. As a chaplain, I'm very moved by the way people of many religious faiths worked together to make this possible," he said.

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